Play is fundamental for kids of all ages — and for parents, too! According to Nicole Kanelakos, director of education services at Sunbeam Family Services, “Play is the work of childhood and the key to overall healthy development.” Kanelakos’ colleague Amy Chlouber, director for mental health services, adds that play is how kids learn about themselves and the world around them.
“They are developing the skills necessary for how they are going to navigate the world into adulthood,” explained Chlouber.
Children’s museums are an amped up way to engage the whole family in a day of play, so check out these four close-to-home options.
CurioCity at Science Museum Oklahoma (Oklahoma City)
Science Museum Oklahoma is full of unexpected surprises and one of the biggest just might be the whimsical children’s museum inside! CurioCity is a unique “village” where families can explore the wonderful world of science within eight over-the-top “neighborhoods,” each with its own personality. From a kid-sized theater and a neighborhood garage to a circus with a human-powered carousel and an elaborate cave that is home to a dinosaur dig, families can explore complex scientific concepts in this hands-on, fanciful world.
A play on words, Odd-A-See Tower is a two-story climber that cultivates the processes of perception, wayfinding and risk-taking inside a climbable playground. A music studio called Riff & Rhythms offers repurposed materials for visitors to investigate sound, pitch and rhythm. There is even a huge space for water play (warning – prepare to get very wet!). All of these hands-on, interactive features prove that learning should be all about having fun — and a lot of it.
While CurioCity was designed for ages 8 and under, the ample engaging activities and creative touches delight all ages.
Science Museum Oklahoma is open daily and CurioCity is included with the price of admission. Regular single-day admission is $20.95 for ages 13 to 64 and $15.95 for seniors 65 and up and kids ages 3 to 12. Kids 2 and under are free.
Jasmine Moran Children’s Museum (Seminole)
In the late 1980s, Melvin and Jasmine Moran took their kids to visit a children’s museum on a family vacation. The couple decided to bring that magic back to their hometown of Seminole, Okla. With the help of several others in the community, the Morans opened Jasmine Moran Children’s Museum in 1993. The museum has since welcomed families with interactive, career-focused exhibits that encourage kids to step into a variety of professions.
“The core of our museum is focused on open-ended play and career-centered exhibits,” said Eileen Castle, the museum’s executive director.
Kids can “work” in a courtroom, construction site, fire station, hospital, news station and much more. They recently renovated several areas, including one of their most popular attractions – a grocery store exhibit that now also includes a pizzeria. Other new additions include a veterinary hospital and performing arts theater complete with props, light and sound booths, backstage areas and even a ticket booth.
Renovations are underway outside as well to add a children’s garden, petting zoo, climbing structures, a zipline and a water and sand area, all of which are expected to open this summer. The SuperSONIC Express, a rideable train, will continue to run during construction, weather permitting, making its half-mile loop around the museum’s outdoor play areas.
Within the new additions are opportunities that encourage parents to play, too.
“It enriches the parent-child relationship when a parent is willing to engage in child-led activities, but sometimes parents have forgotten how to play,” said Castle. “We want parents to know it is not only OK but encouraged for them to join in. We put prompts around the museum to help guide and encourage parents.”
Jasmine Moran is open Tuesday through Sunday and admission is $10 for ages 3 to 59, $9 for 60 and older and free for kids 2 and under. Tickets to ride the SuperSONIC Express are $2.
Discovery Lab (Tulsa)
Originally known as a museum without walls, Discovery Lab opened a brand new 57,000-square-foot science center adjacent to the award-winning community park The Gathering Place. The museum moved from its previous location at Owen Park, bringing along one of its most iconic features: the “Taj Mahal” of tape tunnels that includes a two-story, 34-foot slide crafted entirely of ordinary packing tape.
These towering tunnels “encourage high-energy play to prepare young minds for deeper thinking areas ahead,” explained Dr. Ray Vandiver, the museum’s executive director.
Nearby the tape tunnels in the Central Gallery is a vertical maze made of nets and barrels to climb, too!
“Our main educational philosophy is that both cognitive and physical learning are connected,” shared Vandiver. “We made sure our museum was a full-body, immersive learning experience.”
Another active experience in the museum, Ballapalooza was inspired by the oil and gas history of our state. This collaborative exhibit is filled with simple machines that move balls to a replica of an oil derrick. Once full, the derrick rains its contents (soft foam balls) onto the exhibit floor and the visitors playing.
The Energy gallery, Imaginarium, HydroLab and Math and Music areas encourage visitors of all ages to explore, discover and test their knowledge of a variety of scientific principles, Vandiver shared. Explore water and its various states, immerse yourself in four Oklahoma landscapes that respond to your movement, witness the physics of sound and more.
Then, pull all that learning together in the hands-on labs! Science Lab offers guided-inquiry projects based on a monthly theme and activity of the day. The Workshop is a makerspace that invites families to use tools and unique materials to solve a presented challenge. For example, families might be charged with creating a piece of clothing out of cardboard. Vandiver adds that there is “no right answer” and creativity is not only encouraged but essential. Little Lab is for kids 4 and under and their parents or caregivers.
“Discovery Lab is designed for the entire family with an emphasis on co-play and co-learning,” said Vandiver. “The experience is intended to be unique, which is why we focus on things you can’t find anywhere else.”
Discovery Lab is open daily, and they offer a sensory-friendly family time on the second Sunday of each month. Admission is $12 for ages 2 and up. Teachers are free with a current school staff ID.
Leonardo’s Children’s Museum (Enid)
Founded by an artist and an astronaut and named after the famous 15th-century artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo’s Children’s Museum opened in 1995. That’s when Enid natives Helen Walker Garriott and scientist-astronaut Owen K. Garriot set out to convert an empty warehouse into a world-class children’s museum.
“They had a vision to inspire kids with art and science,” said Riley Jantzen, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations.
With the help of 12,000 volunteers, one year later, Leonardo’s opened Adventure Quest, an outdoor science playground. The three-story wooden castle includes bridges, slides, swings, mazes, a water table, dinosaur dig and Tot Lot. It is the world’s largest community-built outdoor playground.
“Adventure Quest is our biggest and most well-known feature,” said Jantzen. “I have been coming (to Adventure Quest) since it opened and I feel like just last year got [through it all].”
In 2015, the museum’s indoor attractions underwent a major remodel, doubling the amount of exhibit space for families to explore. Today, families can see animal habitats, create on a giant Lite-Brite, care for patients in the pretend medical clinic, tinker with real tools and more. Power Tower, a two-story climbing structure, introduces the energy principles of oil, natural gas, wind and solar power with interactive elements throughout.
There is also a toddler area and exhibit space for rotating exhibits from the Oklahoma Museum Network. Jantzen says the museum is perfectly sized for a day of play.
“We are a really good size for families to spend a day here,” said Jantzen. “You can take it all in and not feel like you missed out on anything.”
Leonardo’s is open Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $11.99 for ages 2 and up. The museum hosts a sensory-sensitive playgroup on the second Tuesday of the month during the school year.
Editor’s note: Science Museum Oklahoma, Leonardo’s and Jasmine Moran are part of the Oklahoma Museum Network, a collaboration funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. The network provides traveling interactive science exhibits, professional development opportunities and educational outreach events. Participating museums offer a passport program to their members. If you have a membership to a participating museum and present a current membership card, you can receive a 20 percent discount on general admission for up to 5 people per day.